Animal Info Whales Family Life and Reproduction

About the family life and reproduction habits and behavior of whales including courtship, mating, and beaching.



While some species of baleen whales are thought to maintain permanent pair bonds, sperm males preside over harem herds. Elaborate courtship rituals ranging from gentle stroking to spectacular acrobatics precede a brief mating, which in some cases can take place in the midst of a vertical leap from the water. Gestation is about a year, depending on species, and pregnancy occurs only every two or three years. The female bears a single calf, which can swim at birth, and feeds it enormous quantities of high-fat milk for a period of up to 12 months, during which time it will almost double in size. The cow-calf relationship is intense. Even in adulthood, offspring are known to return to their mothers in times of stress. Cows keep calves constantly beside them until they are a year old, and are protective to an extreme--in fact, they cannot be induced to leave a distressed (or sometimes dead) calf even at the cost of their own lives, a trait eagerly capitalized upon by whalers of the past.

An unusually strong bond exists among adults also, particularly in the case of sperm whales. Members of a group will surround an ill or injured comrade, lifting it to the surface regularly to breathe. If a sperm whale is harpooned, herd members may bite through the harpoon line and even attack the boat, and if an acutely ill animal chooses to beach itself to avoid drowning, the entire herd will beach and die with it rather than abandon it. Whales are able to develop to enormous sizes because of the suspending properties of water. Out of water, their enormous bulks collapse the lungs, and the whales suffocate.

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